I love Belgium and have spent many happy times there for so many pleasures. But perhaps my fave aspect is the art.
There’s no better place to begin a tour than the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, in Brussels. At the Ancient Art Museum, somewhat deceptively named, you will find the work of artists dating from the 15th through 18th centuries. Here, just a few steps from the wicked fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch and an entire room full of Pieter Bruegel’s endlessly fascinating allegories, you will find works by Peter Paul Rubens, the Prince of all Flemish artists, as you have never seen them before. Rubens can sometimes feel overpowering, but here, in a room suffused with an ethereal light, an almost mystical communion is possible with the master. A few more steps will lead you to the work of Rubens’s artistic opposite, Jacques-Louis David. The French expat spent his final years in the Belgian capital; indeed, the landmark building that was his home is now a stylish hotel, The Dominican.
Brussels is the Belgian capital, but it was not always its first city of painting; that title, for centuries, belonged to Antwerp, described by the great 16th century art historian Carel van Mander as the “mother of the arts.” Antwerp was the city of Rubens, and it still is: there are traces of him everywhere, from the elegant home and workshop he built for himself (then as now one of Antwerp’s great attractions) to his many paintings, found in museums and churches across the city, Rubens himself rests in a spectacular chapel at the Church of St. James. But he is hardly the only master to be discovered in Antwerp. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) is unparalleled for its collection of Flemish primitives, in particular Quentin Metsys and Hans Memling. At the nearby Museum Mayer van den Bergh, works by Bruegel and other old masters are stacked, salon style, in an elegant downtown mansion.
Brussels and Antwerp are the alpha and omega of the Belgian arts, but that leaves quite a bit of territory in between. The coastal city of Ostend is worth any visitor’s time, not the least to see the home of the reclusive James Ensor, who imagined himself the culminating genius of the Flemish painting tradition. The historic university town of Leuven makes for an ideal day trip from Brussels. Once the center of learning in Northern Europe, and home to Erasmus, in 2009 it inaugurated the M Museum, a treasure of art through the ages in a crisp modern building designed by architect Stephane Beel. Pride of place belongs to the Seven Sacraments altarpiece, a work of extraordinary devotional intensity by the mysterious master Rogier van der Weyden.
Picturesque Bruges, with its cobbled streets still redolent of the Middle Ages, boasts the Groeninge Museum, a world-class institution with landmark works from the early days of Flemish painting straight through to the modern era.
Finally, no Belgian art pilgrimage would be complete without a visit to St. Bavo Cathedral in the lovely old city of Ghent, home to one of the most powerful and mysterious of works in the canon of Western Art. The Adoration of the Holy Lamb, a twenty-four panel altarpiece by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck has a transfixing power that is altogether unique and a dramatic history befitting its stature. Both Napoleon and Hitler have stolen it, and no wonder: Its central panel suggests that those who stand before it are bathed in the waters of the fountain of life. What better way to end a trip?